Sure, Mario Kart 8 may have 30 characters and hovercrafts, but there’s something nostalgic about the now-classic Mario Kart 64. If you want to relive the games of your childhood, an emulator is a decent way to go.
The State of Nintendo 64 Emulation: It’s Complicated
Nintendo 64 emulators have been around for over a decade, but development has become slow and scattered. No emulator is perfect. In fact, most of them are fairly inaccurate, and plenty of games are still unplayable.
As such, there’s no one true “best” Nintendo 64 emulator. Certain games may work better with one emulator than another, so you may have to keep a couple around. Furthermore, Nintendo 64 emulators also allow for different plugins that manage video, sound, and controller input—and they all have their own advantages and quirks. Some games may work best with “Jabo’s Direct3D8” video plugin, which comes packaged with Project64. Others may work better with the Glide64 video plugin, which you have to download and install separately. Some plugins, like Glide64, also support extra features like high-res texture packs, which are very cool.
Installation can vary from plugin to plugin and emulator to emulator, and you may have to flip between multiple emulators and plugins to get the best experience on any given game. With all that to contend with, there’s no way we can do an all-encompassing guide to Nintendo 64 emulation. But everyone has to start somewhere, and Project64’s compatibility, features, and ease of use make it our “starting point” pick.
To see the best emulator and plugin configuration for any given game, check out this (now defunct but archived) database. You can also find a lot of info on how to install and configure different plugins on the various emulation forums out there. Google is your friend!
Plays many games from the Nintendo 64 in the form of ROMs
Play games with nearly any USB gamepad and customize the button layout
Save and load your state anywhere in the game
Supports plugins for video, audio, and controller input for extra features and stability
Choose from multiple resolutions and aspect ratios to fit any TV or monitor
Adjust a myriad of graphics settings to get the best picture on your TV or monitor (some dependent on plugin)
Add high-res textures to your game for a better HD experience (dependent on plugin)
Unlock extra features with built-in cheats and GameShark codes
Where It Excels
While the “best” emulator depends on what game you want to play, we’ve found that Project64 is the best starting point for most people. It has decent compatibility and it’s (relatively) easy to set up and use compared to other emulators. It still may take a lot of configuration, but at least you have a forum full of info and a well laid-out GUI to explore all of its different settings.
Where It Falls Short
Project64 does not have anywhere near perfect emulation, though neither does any other Nintendo 64 emulator. That means some games may have small bugs, major issues, or be unplayable altogether. Some games may require certain configurations before they work properly.
Most notorious in Project64 is the sound emulation, which can have crackling or other issues unless the sound plugin is set up properly for that game. Other emulators do not have this issue, though Project64’s other advantages (primarily its ease of use) outweigh this downside.
Also: The latest version of Project64 is 2.2, but some may find 1.6 more stable (they both have their pros and cons). We recommend starting with 1.6, and upgrading to 2.2 if you experience issues. Development is still ongoing (albeit slow), so future versions will hopefully improve across the board.
Mupen64Plus is Project64’s closest competitor. Some games may work better on Mupen64Plus while others work better on Project64. Mupen64Plus also doesn’t share Project64’s occasional sound issues. However, Mupen64Plus has one big downside: it’s far more complicated to set up. It’s command-line only, so you have to do all settings tweaks through config files, and you need to be pretty tech savvy to get everything working. Development seems a bit faster on Mupen64Plus, however, so it’s possible that it’ll pull ahead in the future. Mupen64Plus is also available in RetroArch, which is nice if you’re already using RetroArch for other emulators.
1964 is an old and mostly abandoned Nintendo 64 emulator. However, it’s still easier to use and set up than Mupen64Plus, and it generally runs faster, so users with old hardware may find it useful for some games.
There are a lot of good things on the horizon for Nintendo 64 emulation. CEN64 isn’t completely usable yet, but it aims to be a cycle-accurate Nintendo 64 emulator, which will be a huge game-changer. The currently in-progress GlideN64 plugin will also shake things up quite a bit for users of other emulators like Project64. But development is slow, so until those things happen, we’re stuck with a few imprefect (but very usable) choices.
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